It was just National Eating Disorder Awareness Week here in Canada. (I missed it by a day for reasons related to my health. Sorry not sorry/actually very sorry.) Seems like as good a time as any to expand a bit on what I’ve awkwardly hinted at in my last couple of posts.
I struggled with disordered eating for most of my childhood, but my first bout of full-blown anorexia nervosa was when I was a teenager. It was prolonged, and although I eventually gained weight thanks to a lengthy stay at BC Children’s Hospital, my thinking about eating and my body failed to ever really normalize. I therefore spent the following decade and a half with an eating disorder that was less severe but nevertheless always there, leaving me vulnerable to biological shifts that others might more easily endure.
I’ll admit to not being incredibly attuned to my body’s wants and needs—decades of ignoring them’ll do that to you. I have, however, learned to notice a distinct pattern: that when I lose weight for reasons outside of my control (illness, surgery, etc.), I quickly become more and more obsessive about food, exercise, and my body. When my body weight dips below a magic number, it’s as if someone, or something, has activated a messed-up neurological circuit in my brain, and I’m suddenly in heightened eating-disorder mode again. That’s what happened last year. The confluence of surgeries and brain injury and other life stuff led to unintentional weight loss, which subsequently led to a rapid relapse of anorexia. The speed and intensity with which it overtook me startles me, when I look back. My husband and I recognized what was going on and almost immediately took steps to stop it, but that anorexic beast was dogged and relentless, and despite our best efforts for me to recover at home, I required a ten-week inpatient stay for medical stabilization and to begin the weight-gain process. I then transitioned to an intensive day-hospital program. Once that’s over, I’ll have sixteen weeks of outpatient care.
Why put myself out there by disclosing my eating disorder, you might ask? Because by *not* doing so, I’ve been giving myself the message that I should be ashamed of it, that it’s my fault. Because it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that eating disorders don’t affect only teenagers—they fail to discriminate based on age, gender, (dis)ability, race, shape, and the list goes on. Because my seizures have proven to be a greater complicating factor than anticipated (more some other time, maybe, about the connections between my experience with epilepsy and the manifestation of my anorexia now that I’ve opened the door to writing about my eating disorder), so addressing this in my blog, which is ostensibly epilepsy-themed, is at least somewhat appropriate. Because I talk a big talk about the importance of reducing stigma re mental-health issues but have then chosen to be the world’s biggest (errr …) hypocrite by not disclosing, or only half-disclosing, my own all-consuming mental-health (and physical) illness to the vast majority of the people I know. Because I realize, as I type this out, that while I’m embarrassed, I’m also proud of how hard I’ve been working to get better. It’s been extremely challenging—one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and if you’ve read through this blog’s archive, you know that I’ve navigated some less-than-ideal situations these last few years. Not that I had a choice in the matter: if I hadn’t been open to receiving help, my irrational OCD-fuelled and anorexia-driven compulsions would’ve killed me. Blunt, harsh, and dramatic, perhaps, but true.
That, I guess, is the primary reason I felt it was important to mark National Eating Disorder Awareness Week with a post about how anorexia came back to mess up my life: because I still have mine. I’m lucky, in that sense; as NEDIC states on its website, citing studies to back up the figures, “AN has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – it is estimated that 10% of individuals with AN will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.”
Recovering from anorexia is hard. When I was admitted to hospital, I assumed that I’d be in and out in no time at all because I’d convinced myself that my body is the exception to every rule and that I would, my eating-disordered mind told me, gain all of the weight required to reach the low end of my healthy range in a couple of weeks. Instead, it’s been almost four months of intensive treatment, with a meal plan that now includes three large meals, three large snacks, and six Ensure Plus Calorie beverages a day, and I’m only now approaching my weight goal. I am also medically stabilized, and my attitude toward food has improved in ways that I didn’t think possible in the fifteen or so years that I had an eating disorder that set many limits on how I lived.
I’m determined not to settle for an eating-disordered brain in a healthier body this time around. If I let myself think about what I lost as a result of how long I accepted the fact that my eating was out of whack, I … get really sad #sowhatifI’mcrying. I had times of being more OK about food and times of being less fun to be around because I was so weird and restrictive about it, but there wasn’t an extended period since I was in my mid-teens that I didn’t consciously restrict what I ate—there wasn’t a single day except when I was in the ICU for epilepsy that I didn’t count calories, and lemme tell you, those running tallies occupy a lot of headspace, even for someone whose OCD mostly involves numbers. The longer I keep consuming sufficient amounts of foods, being careful to incorporate variety and challenging items, the further I distance myself from those limitations, which caused shame, anxiety, self-isolation, and endless turned-down invitations to events at which I knew I’d be expected to eat.
There’s so much I can’t get back. I can’t return to my wedding day and eat and drink rather than making excuses because the food wasn’t “safe.” I can’t repeat birthdays and do things differently—pick the cake I’d have wanted if I hadn’t had a firmly entrenched eating disorder, go to a more interesting restaurant, eat greasy nachos. I can, however, make healthier choices moving forward. One of those choices is telling diet culture to screw off. The idea that we should manipulate our bodies to fit some weird societal image of what’s perfect doesn’t allow for the obvious reality that we’re all unique. Another choice is what I’ve done via this post—disclosing that I lived with disordered eating for most of my life, that it sucked, and that I have no intention of going back to it.
Life’s too short to count calories.
Obvious disclaimer: I’m not a (medical) doctor. I’m simply recounting my experience.
That said, if you think you currently need help for an eating disorder, my nonmedical advice is that you probably do. I strongly encourage you to reach out to health-care professionals sooner rather than later. Eating disorders are tricky, insidious bastards, and they come in many forms. Don’t let your eating disorder tell you that you aren’t “sick enough.” Don’t convince yourself that you can deal with Symptom X as long as you don’t have Symptom Y.
Jumping-off points for people in North America: